How much do authors make a year?
It's impossible to say because it varies wildly—between authors, but even just for one author across several years. Let's look at my lifetime income as a case study.
In my end-of-year retrospective, I spoke about how little I made from traditional publishing during 2022. This has been a trend for me for awhile now. On paper, I look like a dying business. In the past two years, I’ve made just under 3k total from traditional publishing. In the last three years, roughly 18k total.
Like I said, dying business.
But I’ve also had solid years, and very good years, and one amazing year! The trouble is, my last solid year was 2019. That’s a long time to go without making decent money.
But Erin, don’t you budget? one might ask. Don’t you have a rough idea of what you’ll make each year? Couldn’t you see this coming?!
Of course I budget, and in some years, if I’m under contract, yes, I have a rough idea of how much I have coming down the pipeline. But authors don’t earn a salary. We’re not employees, we’re freelancers. We make what the contract says we make, and we’re paid it according to the schedule laid out in said contract .1
This means that if I’m out of contract—if I have no in-the-works books with a publisher and instead am trying to find a home for what I hope will be my next novel—no, I don’t really know what I’ll make in the coming year. In that scenario, it could very well be nothing.
How authors earn money
Traditionally published authors make money in namely two ways: via advances and royalties.2
The advance is how much the publisher pays the author for the rights to publish their novel. A 30k advance in a one-book deal is essentially 30k for one book. A 30k advance in a three-book deal, means 10k for each of the three books. Trad advances can van vary greatly, from 5k to 50k to 500k to 1.5mil! It all depends on the author, the book, the publisher, and how many copies of said book the pub thinks they can sell.
The advance is like a loan, only you never have to pay it back (unless you breach your contract). After you sign your contract, the publisher will pay you the advance upfront. (Sorta. There's a pay schedule. For example: getting a third of the advance when you sign the contract, another third when the book is accepted by you editor as revised/final, and a final third when it hits shelves.)
Royalties are earned per retail sale of the finished novel, but paid to the authors only after the publisher recoups the advance. Royalty rates are typically 10% of hardcover list price and 6% of paperback list price. For ebooks, it's usually 25% of net sales. The publisher will keep track of the author's royalty earnings but the author will not receive a royalty check until these earnings surpass the advance the author received upfront. (This is where the term "earning out" comes from. When an author says they have "earned out," their royalty earnings have surpassed the advance the publisher paid them. They will now begin to get royalty checks.) These checks are paid out twice a year.
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Royalty income is extremely hard to predict. You may not earn out your advance on any given contract (this is pretty common), and if you don’t… no royalty payments! Once you do earn out, those payments could be small. And even if they start big, they could dwindle over time, because very few books sell exceptionally well forever.
Perhaps you see where I’m going with this: advances are where the more predictable money is. Sell a book to a publisher, and you have money in the pipeline. How much will depend on your contract details, but it’s there and coming your way.
Experience trouble selling your book to a publisher and find yourself with small (or no) royalty payments from your backlist? You’re not going to be earning much any time soon. (This has been my predicament the past two years.)
If that any of the above confused you, or you simply want a really detailed breakdown of pay schedules and how/when authors get paid, see this old newsletter.
So what’s an average author income?
Okay, Erin, you might be thinking. I get it. Advances + royalties = author earnings. But what is the average amount an author earns per year? Give me an actual number, please!
There are lots of surveys out there that try to answer this question. If you browse them, you’ll quickly see that income amounts vary widely. I’m tackling only traditional publishing in this piece, but the surveys exist for both trad and indie authors, and that variety remains across the board.
What you can’t see from any of these surveys is if the author who reports an amazing year goes on to repeat that trend or if they instead follow it up with a very bad year. Similarly, the author who reports a bad year could see solid or great income the next, but the survey can’t tell us that either. And unless the survey collects the specific data, it can also be difficult to tell if racial disparities come into play when determining advance size. Example: BIPOC authors reported much lower advances than white authors during the informal #PublishingPaidMe Twitter surveys a few years ago.
Of course, what any individual considers bad/solid/great will come down to a variety of factors. Where do they live? What’s their cost of living? Do they rent or own? Are they single? Do they have a family to support? If family, does someone in that family carry the healthcare? Do they have to buy their own healthcare? Are they saving for retirement? College funds? etc etc.
There’s also the fact that “decent” author earnings within traditional publishing are not what many working professionals of other industries might consider decent.
Remember, we’re not getting health care or benefits because we are not employed by our publishers, and taxes aren’t taken out of our paychecks either; we need to set 20-25% aside and pay it quarterly. Plus, what many trad authors consider a “decent” advance translates to a very modest annual “salary.” Why? Well, big deals (like a six-figure advance) are rare. And while most authors consider a six-figure advance amazing, smaller six-figure advances actually don’t stretch terribly far because of the trad payment schedule.
Let’s talk numbers
Before I get into the actual numbers I’ve earned, it is worth noting that my best year in trad publishing—what I consider to be my lone “amazing” year—was my very first year in the industry. As in, 2011, the year I signed my first publishing contract.
This is wild when you think about it! No one knew if I was capable of revising well, or if I could meet deadlines, or if I’d be any good at marketing my novels and promoting my work. I had no track record (in terms of sales numbers or starred reviews or awards). There was literally NOTHING to measure me by and yet I have literally never again been paid on par with my first year in trad.3
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